Lars-Olof Magnusson was just eleven years old when he sewed together the first pair of gloves created by Hestra — amongst the finest glove-makers in the world. Eager to help his father Martin Magnusson, Lars-Olof struggled diligently with his new responsibility, binding together the leather and wool as best he could. His father may have had to work especially hard to sell that first batch of gloves, but it was just the beginning of a remarkable legacy.
Martin Magnusson knew well the misery of stiff, cramped hands and bitter, pinched fingers from his field service in WWI and wintery agricultural work. He had moved to a new town in the south of Sweden in search of clean air to ease his asthma. Hestra is a landscape of pristine lakes and crisply verdant forest where, back in the 1930s, lots of lumberjacks worked the region.
Martin needed a new livelihood to feed his family and observing the inadequate gloves the lumberjacks wore and knowing how vital comfortable hands are, he saw his opening. Martin named the company after his new home and Hestra was born. Just one year later, in 1937, fate lent a hand. A ski resort opened in Hestra and Martin branched out into ski gloves with a whole new customer base on his doorstep.
Eighty-one years later and Martin’s eldest son Lars-Olof, 92, is still turning up for work five days a week, as are his sons Svante, 67, and Claes 57, and their two sons each — Jacob, 30, Niklas, 28, Anton, 28, and Jonas, 30. Today, Hestra is not only one of the best manufacturers of skiing gloves but of multiple lines, including outdoor gloves and dress gloves, with a total product range of 400 styles in up to 30 colours.
Just as Lars-Olof and his brother Göte began working for their father Martin after school, so Svante and Claes did too. The fourth generation has also followed the same route.
— They started to do some simple work when they were kids, just to make some pocket money. We did the same when we were kids, Svante explains.
— This was an important lesson: to make money you have to work. The company has always been at the centre in our family. It is all around you. You cannot stay away from this. The company is a part of the family. It’s the place where things happen and even as a kid you understand the importance of, in Swedish, ”firman” — the Company — Svante adds.
With factories in Hungary and China, subsidiaries in the United States and Germany, as well as customers in 30 countries worldwide, helping to run the company often involves extensive travel. Speaking via Skype from Shanghai, Niklas Magnusson elaborates on his father’s explanation of how he joined the company:
— There is a mentality back home that a good person is a hard-working person. So, my parents and my cousin’s parents put us to work when we were around six years old. I think for my first salary I got 220 kronor (€22) for about 22 hours’ work. But it was more like playing with my two older cousins. We continued working a little bit after school and learned more and did more and more. We were 14 or 15 the first time we went to Asia to see the factories… it was more for fun.
Svante believes that by including the boys in the daily business but without pressuring them to work, it sparked a natural curiosity in the company.
— We never pushed the boys to join the company but, without intentions, we obviously created their interest. he states.
They couldn’t have anticipated just how involved they would become, as Niklas and his cousin Anton became so engrossed that they not only learned how the business works but also how to actually make gloves themselves. In doing so, they have helped to preserve a time-honoured craft that was on the verge of disappearing.
— When I was 18 I went to our studios in Hungary and tested how it was to cut gloves, Niklas explains.
— Then after high school my cousin Anton and I got an apprenticeship with the last glove-cutter in Sweden, [Anders Malmgren] who was 76 at that time, and we spent three-and-a-half-years learning the craft and making the nicest pairs of dress gloves it’s possible to make.
This exceptionally mature and incisive decision by the two 18-year olds made them the only two active glove-cutters in Sweden. They are safeguarding a rare skill — there are currently fewer than a hundred practicing glove cutters in the world. Their craft is to make gloves in accordance with the French tradition. It was in France that couture glove-making was perfected during the 17th century, particularly by the Huguenots. The method remains unsurpassed to this day but, due to it being a relatively expensive process that is both time and labour-intensive, it is increasingly uncommon.
— It’s called the French method and it’s still practised in Hungary and in the old Hungarian part of Romania, but in Western Europe, it’s almost dead… there are just a few active cutters left, Niklas says, adding; — So my cousin Anton and I are among the last glove-cutters, according to this French tradition of glove cutting, in Western Europe.
The glove industry in Western Europe was huge in the 1950s but its steep decline began in the 1960s when the Soviet Union set up huge factories in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. These Eastern European companies slashed the market prices and the whole gloving industry in Western Europe crumbled in the face of such stiff competition.
The same demise happened in Hungary and across Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union fell apart. The industry’s coup de grâce came, this time, at the hands of Asia and China, who lowered prices even further. Consequently, the traditional glove making industry in Hungary today is tiny but of immense value, both culturally and in terms of creating the finest leather dress gloves money can buy.
While Hestra produce their table-cut dress gloves in Hungary, their wide range of sports gloves are constructed in China. It’s important to note here that when it comes to sports gloves, the idea that ‘Made in China’ could imply ‘cheap’ is a misperception. The most technically advanced sports gloves using pre-curved glove technology were first developed in the 70s in Taiwan and Japan, with production later moving to China, so it is here that the highest quality sports gloves are manufactured.
Whilst visiting China, Niklas works ‘hand in glove’ with the same Chinese people that his grandfather worked with. These extremely close relationships with partners, and those between the Magnusson family, and indeed the relationship with the customers, are at the very heart of Hestra and contribute to the strong sense of integrity the company exudes.
Evaluating how he himself conducts business Niklas says:
— I think things should be done properly the first time… both in business and in life, because if you try to take a shortcut you end up having to do it once again. Spend time, do it properly the first time and you are better off in the long-term.
On the subject of long-term I ask Niklas about the future of the company and how the Magnusson’s as a group envision the road ahead.
— It’s a family company and it’s a lifestyle. We are all working really hard but now we are in a different position than when my great-grandfather started the company. We’re a relatively big and profitable company and this development has extended the responsibility to a wider group of people and colleagues beyond what initially was just our own family. Our main goal today is to have a production capacity that meets our customer’s needs. We don’t seek to get bigger just for the sake of being bigger. There is little point in that. Nor are we driven by the next quarter, for us, it’s more about the atmosphere within the company and the people and colleagues that one works with and meets along the way and that’s what keeps us on the right path.
Speaking again with Lars-Olof who, rather than sewing gloves as he did at age 11, now takes care of vital details such as freight costs and foreign taxes, it’s clear that his conviction for what is most important in business is rooted in honesty.
— To be true to oneself and others and to do the right thing is what’s important, he says with calm assurance, adding:
— To act in order to maintain and increase the trust and faith in yourself and for the company.
His vision for the company his father started remains the same as ever:
— It is my hope and wish that it will develop at a pace by which we can always stay on top of the market when it comes to quality, craftsmanship, function and product development, he says, with obvious optimism for the likelihood of such hopes.
He knows that the company is in safe hands with his grandchildren. Reflecting on what the world will be like when he is 92 and pass the wisdom and control of the business down the family line, Niklas says;
— I do hope and believe it will be a better and more equal world than today’s. I believe we’ll be able to stop global warming so that coming generations can continue to ski and enjoy the beautiful nature as we can. I think it will be a combination of technological advancement and smarter consumption. Buy less, buy with higher quality, repair it when it is broken and recycle it when it is worn out.
Putting himself in his grandfather’s shoes, some 65 years into the future, Niklas concludes:
— When I turn 92 and look back at our company and what we have accomplished, I hope to be proud that we successfully reached and involved more people through our gloves and the business, and that while doing so we stayed true to our core values and contributed to a more sustainable society. And I do hope the sixth generation is on the way into the company and hopefully, alongside my cousin Anton, we will be well enough to teach them the art of traditional glove cutting.
Founded by: Martin Magnusson in Hestra, 1936
Products: 400 styles of gloves in up to 30 colours in three categories.
Bespoke Service: Available since 2012 at the Hestra store in Stockholm and a few times a year at The Armoury in New York City.
Sold in: Approximately 30 countries, with USA as the strongest market.
Managed by: On paper by Svante Magnusson but in reality, we make most decisions with consensus within the generations. We don’t really have a “manager” per se.
Owned by: Family company, independently owned by four generations of the Magnusson family. Today it is owned by the third and fourth generation.
Turnover: 37 million euro.
Nick Rice is a British editor and writer, specialised in craftmanship